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Originally published Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Small-business owners hit with burnout blues

After more than a decade as a project manager in the tree-care industry, Tim Scherpenisse was suddenly out of work. Two years later, he...

Newhouse News Service

Signs of burnout

• Personality change

• Emotional exhaustion

• Abrupt professional and personal interactions

• Cynical attitude

• Lack of energy

• Quick temper

• Coming into work late

• Not returning phone calls

Source: American Psychological Association, Carol Crawford

After more than a decade as a project manager in the tree-care industry, Tim Scherpenisse was suddenly out of work.

Two years later, he is an economic forecaster, strategic planner, marketing director and human-resources supervisor.

He is a small-business owner. And the transition has been challenging.

"It's an obstacle not to let the business run you. If you're not careful, it can consume you," said Scherpenisse, owner of New Life Arboricultural Services in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Scherpenisse is among a growing number of workers forging their own path in a shifting economy that has suffered years of job losses and growing unemployment.

Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent. The number of small businesses in the state is 850,000, up 14 percent since 2003, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Of course, the smallest remain the most fragile, with companies of nine employees or fewer accounting for 75 percent of the state's business closures each year.

As a result, Michigan's economy, like many others, has become increasingly reliant on the business savvy of emerging entrepreneurs stressed by long hours and no guaranteed paycheck.

For an entrepreneur, developing comprehensive business skills while staying sane is no small trick.

Burnout is a major pitfall.

"As that [skill set] is being cultivated is when I begin to see burnout occur," said consultant Carol Crawford of The Alternative Board, a Colorado-based company that offers business owners peer support, private coaching and advice.

"You're not crazy, and you're not lazy. Sometimes it's just natural that it occurs," Crawford said.

Symptoms include changes in personality and behavior, she said. They are "not a lot different than classic depression."

New skills needed

The cause of burnout often stems from a pressing need for entrepreneurs to develop broader skills as their businesses grow.

"It can't just be me sitting in my office making widgets anymore," Crawford said. "Owners don't realize that they have to change. They follow the definition of insanity — thinking they'll do more of the same and get a different result.

"Some people say, 'I've been doing it this way for 23 years, and I'm going to do it 23 more.' Nowadays, that just isn't the case. You're either moving forward or backward."

That has been the case for Jim Warner, 45, a 16-year Autodie International worker who lost his job in 2002. Along with co-workers, he launched Die Tech Services in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A kind of virtual die shop ("We're a die shop, just without the die shop"), the company contracts skilled labor to manufacturers across the country and foreign markets, including Mexico and China. And it has grown.

On-the-job training

Starting with a handful of workers five years ago, Die Tech now employs more than 20 people and had $3 million in sales last year. But over the years, Warner has been learning on the job.

Some lessons have been in frustration.

"When you get into business, it's all exciting and fun," he said. "But then as you start growing the business, we got to a point where we needed to work on the business, not in the business.

"It's just the growing pains of it," he said. "The numbers start piling up and you have the responsibility of 'Now I've got to find work for this number of guys.'

"Instead of just thinking about a couple of things, you're thinking about everything."

Looking back, Warner wonders if he and his partner considered too much at times. He points to research that went into building a die shop in the South, a project that never happened.

Had the company stuck to its core business plan, the money and energy could have gone to that, he said.

"Once you start heading off track, you're going down a bad road," Warner said. "You've got to have yourself focused on what it is you want to do, what's the goal. I think I'm over that hump. I see a clear vision of where we're going."

Danger signs

The Alternative Board doesn't prevent burnout, Crawford said, but "we help identify it in the very early stages."

Burnout "enters at different stages for different people. It generally continues to deteriorate," she said.

"We've got to get back to your North star. Where do you want to go with the business?"

Sept. 11, 2001, caused one episode and, more recently, the state's sluggish economy and a slowdown in tenant leasing sparked another.

"I just felt tired all the time. I was like a walking zombie," said Deb Bates, 55, owner of Choice Business Services, which provides executive-suite leasing and business support.

"I just was lackluster. I just didn't have the get-up-and-go."

But she said personal regression repeatedly has sparked business renewal for her four-employee firm. As the market and available technology have evolved, so has Choice Business Services.

Staying flexible and making little changes to suit customer needs are key, said Bates, who also participated in Alternative Board meetings.

"If you don't change, your company will die," she said.

"Burnout, a lot of it is wallowing in the past things that have happened and not looking at the new things that are happening and reinventing yourself.

"Just like Madonna, she's 50 years old, but she's always been able to come back, and that's what you have to do."

Scherpenisse, 32, has gotten guidance from a consortium of fellow green-industry pros as he strives to balance time running his business with planning time.

In addition to his tree-care and landscaping work, he has launched a division looking to serve a burgeoning green-roof industry.

Among the lessons learned is to manage growth by hiring part-timers and subcontractors in the peak season and being lean in the offseason.

He's getting over the idea that if something has to be done right, he's the only one who can do it.

Of course, there is still the constant battle for peace of mind in a tough economy.

"A challenge in these times is the disappointment of 'We didn't get that job' or 'We didn't get awarded that contract,' " Scherpenisse said. "Mentally, that can really get you down."

Optimism sticks

But he has become philosophic. "It is what it is. A closed door today leaves room for a bigger door to open tomorrow."

Scherpenisse said he needs that kind of optimism to stay on an even keel. With diesel fuel nearing $5 per gallon, financial stress rides along to every job site.

But with some guidance, the psyche doesn't have to burn along with the gas.

"You have to surround yourself with a diverse set of people in different types of businesses that are willing to mentor you. You have to listen to what they have been through and learn from their mistakes," Scherpenisse said.

"It's been a long time since someone told me 'Dude, you don't look very good.' "

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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